SOCHI -- On Tuesday night, under the lights of the RusSki Gorki Jumping Center, history will be perched on a ledge, staring clear down a 90-meter hill that is finally free of obstacles.
For the first time in history, 30 women representing 12 nations will fly off the Russian mountainside to compete for an Olympic medal. The world will watch -- and it’ll be hailed a victory for women, for equality, for sport -- without knowing the frustrating journey it took to climb this 90-meter hill and the fight that must go on.
It started long before Peter Jerome bought a copy of “Nonprofit Kit for Dummies” -- women have ski jumped competitively since as far back as 1862 -- but in searching for a way to help his daughter, Jessica, keep her passion alive, he and his wife, Barbara, helped lead a movement. They started a non-profit, now Women’s Ski Jumping USA, to help fund a program for girls and fight for their official inclusion in the Olympics.
Girls had, unofficially, already jumped at the games, fore-running for men at the Salt Lake City Games in 2002. But it didn’t seem to matter that Jessica and fellow American Lindsey Van were good enough to jump.
Female ski jumpers were frozen out of Salt Lake, out of Turin, out of Vancouver, told by the IOC that the sport didn’t have the requisite participation numbers. Never mind the fact that men’s and women’s ski cross did not meet the same criteria and both debuted at the Vancouver Olympics nonetheless. It seemed ski cross, which appeals to a younger demographic and fit an Olympic vision for a new kind of games, made for a more convenient addition.
The IOC could note it hasn’t taken women’s ski jump any longer than it took other sports -- like short-track speed skating and curling -- to join the Olympic program. But those sports don’t bring up the matter of gender equity. Ski jumping has a long tradition rooted in thrill-seeking masculinity. The idea of women hurtling through the air clashes with those ideals, and the women couldn’t help but feel this was the real reason for their exclusion.
In 2005, the president of the International Ski Federation, Gian-Franco Kasper, told NPR that he believed very few women could “really jump” at the time. He then added, rather infamously, “Don't forget, it’s like jumping down from about two meters [to] the ground about a thousand times a year, which seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.”
Kasper, not a doctor “from a medical point of view,” has since come around, at least publicly, and his organization has thrown more support to women’s ski jumping over the last six years. In 2006, FIS submitted the sport for Olympic consideration and introduced a world championship in 2009.
But the undercurrent of institutional sexism still seems to exist around the sport, particularly in the more patriarchal parts of the world.
“You go to Europe and you go ski jump with the guys, and it’s still slightly uncomfortable,” Van said. “You feel like sometimes people just don’t want you there. Even now. It’s a male-dominated sport, and a female doing it.… I don’t know. [But] you can feel when you’re not wanted or it’s strange.”
While men have three Olympic events -- the normal hill, the large hill and a team event -- the women will compete in just one (the normal hill). The Nordic Combined, which incorporates ski jump and cross-country skiing, remains a male-only sport.
They were allowed to remain that way because only sports introduced after 1991 were required to hold events for both genders. And, well, ski jumping and the Nordic Combined have been around since the inception of the Winter Games.
“It takes a long time to change minds,” Van told reporters last October. “Just because it’s in the Olympics doesn’t mean that everybody accepts it…. It’s a step. [But] there’s still a lot more steps. It feels like a small victory.”
The hope is that this Olympic debut will grow the sport, will convince organizers to let them jump the larger hills more often -- maybe even one day take on ski-flying hills that stretch up to 185 meters tall.
A decade ago, Van jumped a massive ski-flying hill in Vikersund, Norway, calling it “the most fun I ever had ski jumping.” She, however, has not jumped a ski-flying hill since, simply because those hills don’t welcome women for reasons that are vague, at best. Even with 22 years of ski jumping experience and a world championship title in 2009, Van can only dream of flying off the in-ramp of the gigantic jump at Planica, Slovenia, for instance.
“I would like to see more stuff change and keep moving forward,” Van said. “But I’m skeptical. I just think there’s a part of the ski jumping [community] that’s like, ‘Look, we gave you this [one event]. And you should be happy with this, and that’s what you get for now. And kind of, go away for a little bit.’
“I think they just got sick of us,” she said. “Honestly.”
Van, Jerome and female ski jumpers from five other countries brought a lawsuit to a Canadian court in 2008 to petition for their inclusion in Vancouver. The suit was dismissed a year later, but it no doubt irked the IOC, long accustomed to process, rules and their ultimate authority. But in 2011, the organization finally came around, admitting women’s ski jump into the Sochi program.
Finally, time spent arguing and petitioning could be replaced by training and jumping. “I’d rather show someone than tell someone,” said Van, clearly tired of playing spokeswoman before athlete. “It’s a lot to think about, to keep fighting. It’s very hard physically and emotionally. I’d say [I’d stop fighting], but I don’t think I could keep jumping without wanting more. So I’ll keep fighting. I’d rather just be an athlete, but at this point…”
On Tuesday night, under the lights of RusSki Gorki Jumping Center, Lindsey Van will scoot out onto the metal bar at the top of the ramp. She’ll stare down that hill and take a deep breath before letting go. And when she pushes off the icy ramp, cuts through the wind like an arrow through the sky, Van, and the 29 other women making history, will continue to fight for their right to fly.